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The Local Church — cult of Christianity supported by two ‘cult watchers’



In October 2006, Hank Hanegraaff -- the controversial president of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) -- and Gretchen Passantino -- wife of the late Bob Passantino, with whom she founded the apologetics ministry Answers in Action (AIA) -- came out in support of the so-called Local Church, a cult of Christianity.

They did so by filing Friend of the Court briefs, supporting the Local Church's ill-advised (and -- had the movement been, as it claims to be, Christian -- unbiblical) lawsuit against Harvest House Publishers and authors John Ankerberg and John Weldon. The lawsuit -- that attacked an entry on the Local Church in Ankerberg and Weldon's Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions -- failed, and a final appeal was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It is helpful to review why the Local Church was included in the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions.

Under the heading, "Cult Watchers Reconsider: Former detractors of Nee and Lee now endorse 'local churches,'" Christianity Today recently described what led Hanegraaff and Passantino to have a change of heart regarding the Local Church:

Two notable critics have changed their minds on the controversial "local churches" movement that follow the teachings of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee.

Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute (CRI), and Gretchen Passantino Coburn, director of Answers in Action, each published their new support in a November booklet by the Defense and Confirmation Project, founded to rebut criticism of Nee and Lee.

Hanegraaff says the local churches fit neither the theological or sociological definition of cultic activity. (CRI published critiques in the 1970s that influenced other watchdog groups.) Passantino Coburn, who coauthored The New Cults with Walter Martin, writes passionately and personally about the "most significant reassessment from my career."
- Source: Cult Watchers Reconsideroffsite, ChristianityToday.com, Collin Hansen, Jan. 26, 2009

The Defense and Confirmation Project, publishers of the The Local Churches: “Genuine Believers and Fellow Members of the Body of Christ” booklet PDF fileoffsite referred to, is operated by the Local Church.

The Christianity Today news item also quotes former CRI researcher Calvin Beisner:

But the group has not renounced Lee's most controversial teachings, and that's the key problem for critics such as Calvin Beisner, formerly of CRI.

Beisner faults Lee on a number of points, including two forms of modalism condemned by the early church's ecumenical councils, and said no critics who have changed their mind—including his sister, Passantino Coburn—have yet documented how former concerns about Lee were actually misrepresentations.

"Merely issuing doctrinal statements that are orthodox so far as they go but do not explicitly repudiate the contrary statements of Lee is not sufficient," Beisner said. "As Francis Schaeffer insisted again and again, in our postmodern world we must not only say what we believe, but also must deny what we don't believe. The Worldwide Church of God set a good example in the 1980s, repudiating the heretical teachings of its founder Herbert W. Armstrong, and it is not asking the Local Church too much to do the same."
- Source: Cult Watchers Reconsideroffsite, ChristianityToday.com, Collin Hansen, Jan. 26, 2009

Ironically, Beisner is not only a former CRI researcher, but also the brother of Gretchen Passantino. In a 1978 CRI statement titled, "The Teachings of Witness Lee and the Local Church," Beisner, along with Bob and Gretchen Passantino, wrote:

Our conclusion can only be that some of the basic teachings of Witness Lee and the Local Church are heretical and dangerous. We urge Christians to pray for those in the Local Church, help them see Lee's errors and return to the truth as it is in Jesus and the Word of God, which is the lamp unto our feet. Let us all heed the warning of God's Word in all matters (Acts 20:31). A number of the basic teachings of the Local Church are false, and it is man's carnal nature as well as Satan that breeds falsity (John 8:44). Such teachings are darkness (Eph. 6:12), and the Christian must not walk in darkness (1 John 1:5-7). Let us walk in the light as He is in the Light (1 John 1:7).
- Source: Cal Beisner and Bob and Gretchen Passantino, The Teachings of Witness Lee and the Local Church, Christian Research Institute statement DL-075.

See also:
Is the Local Church a cult of Christianity?
A Formal Response to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, by Calvin Beisner

Apologist Rob Bowman, executive director of the Institute for Religious Research has posted his observations regarding the testimonies found in the booklet:

According to an article posted online two days ago at Christianity Today, “Two notable critics have changed their minds on the controversial ‘local churches’ movement that follow the teachings of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee.” The two critics are Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute (CRI), and Gretchen Passantino Coburn, director of Answers in Action (AIA). The article refers to a booklet to which Hanegraaff and Passantino Coburn contributed and that the Defense and Confirmation Project, a pro-Local Churches group, published in November 2007. Entitled The Local Churches: “Genuine Believers and Fellow Members of the Body of Christ”, the booklet includes “Testimonies” (as the title page quite correctly calls them) from Hanegraaff, Passantino Coburn, and Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller’s contribution is a statement representing the assessment of Richard Mouw, the school’s president, and two other Fuller professors.
[...]

…I want to offer a response to the DCP booklet, focusing on the contribution of Passantino Coburn. (All parenthetical page references are to this booklet.) Let me make clear that my focus here is not on the salvation, spiritual condition, or even the theological orthodoxy of the people in the Local Churches. I am responding to the “testimonies” of the authors as they appear in the booklet. I am quite open to new information and reasoned reassessments of old conclusions. Unfortunately, the testimonies of Hanegraaff and Passantino Coburn offered neither new information nor reasoned reassessments.
- Source: Testimonies Are Not Enough: CRI, Answers in Action, and the Local Churchesoffsite, Rob Bowman, The Religious Researcher, Jan. 28, 2009

See also:
Open Letter: Leading Evangelical Scholars Call On Local Churches/Living Stream Ministry to Renounce Doctrines, Legal Attacksoffsite
Analysis of Local Church statements regarding the Godhead, by Alan Gomes.

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This post was last updated: Jan. 29, 2009